Some of the heart-breaking images in these past few weeks of the spread of the pandemic in India are of the working-class woman with her child on her back walking miles to reach her native village, as the place of work, which had become her home, has either asked her to go back or left her with few resources to survive; and upon reaching her “home,” she got sprayed on with disinfectant in the most insensitive manner or was locked up in quarantine.
This scenario connotes a generalised condition of homelessness. Her “home” does not want to welcome her back just in case she is carrying the virus of development, while the city for whose perennial development she and her family give their sweat and tears wants her to go back as there is literally no space for ‘outsiders’ like her to stay and maintain physical distance.
The current health crisis compels us to turn the lens back on to the struggles and insecurities of migration and settlement. The immediate contours of the crisis are of public health, but it throws up important questions about modernisation, urbanisation and their consequences.
According to the 2011 Census, over 30% of the total population, ie, over 300 million people, are characterised as migrants, of which a substantial number are informal labour who move from villages to cities in search of livelihoods.
Hyderabad, for example, has been attracting a steady flow of migrant workers not only from the rural districts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh but also from other States in the North, especially in the construction sector. Migration of people and the large-scale transformations they usher in have long been a preoccupation of social scientists.
Historians have looked at trajectories of people moving around the globe for centuries, noting important events and tracking formations of empires and the onset of modernity. Urbanisation is the most significant cause of migration that, in turn, has led to the greatest numbers of people moving from villages to cities, especially in countries like India and China.
Asian societies were hardly static before their European colonisation. Pilgrims, merchants, soldiers, and sailors traversed long distances much before the 19th century, but the colonial period intensified the scale of migration. The second half of the 19th century ushered in a revolution in mass mobility. Periods of large-scale violence forced mass migrations. China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Iraq, parts of India and Afghanistan, have all experienced political turmoil and displacement of people.
The uneven economic development in Asia led to what scholars of migration call “push” and “pull” factors, linking economic inequality to people’s mobility. The creation of post-colonial states led to people becoming mobile in the context of national development.
Policymakers have been studying ways in which economic turmoil has often led to both forced and voluntary migration. Sociologists and anthropologists have focused on the processes of assimilation and acculturation that are often associated with migration. Migrants manage to find work and rebuild their lives in the city, with dreams of upward mobility, enrolling their children in school, providing them new opportunities, and also sending money back home to parents and other family members left behind (a pattern of remittances that is undervalued).
A poor migrant woman aspires that her children escape conditions of destitution that forced her to the city. She starts working as a construction labourer, then moves into domestic work as she starts dropping anchor in the city. Even as she settles in, taking care of her household despite all odds, suddenly, a government coping with a global pandemic directs her to stay at home and not stir out for her own safety and for the safety of her family and employers.
For the domestic worker, the workplace (usually, multiple households) is where she spends 12 hours a day, cleaning, washing, cooking, and sometimes engaging in child or elder care. These may often be safer spaces than her own home with her abusive alcoholic husband. The physical distance required to counter the spread of the Coronavirus is a privilege of those who have the space for it, not for those living in crowded slums of Dharavi or the settlements around Hyderabad’s Hitec City.
Unfortunately, our social attitudes toward these migrant workers are such that they are constantly ‘otherised’, whether he is the waiter in a Chinese restaurant or a security guard at a gated community. Recall the discrimination that the women employees of a beauty parlour from Manipur were subjected to when they were trying to go into a supermarket in Hyderabad recently because of misplaced perceptions of their being ‘foreigners’.
Our deep-seated prejudices come to the fore as the northeast person or a Muslim from Bihar becomes easy targets. Ironically, it is the successful IT employee, who has come to the big city from elsewhere to realise his/her global dreams, that ends up ranting about ‘these unruly migrant workers’ protesting for loss of their livelihoods in the lockdown.
We need to accept that all of us have our own histories of migration and straddle multiple homelands. A virulent contagion cannot forever close our borders, both internal and international, and people on the move will remain the backbone and foundation of our economy.
To understand contemporary global economic transformations, one must acknowledge the critical contribution made by migrant workers to our economy and social life. Governments must see migrants as part of the city’s vital support system, rather than perceive them as a burden.
Public policy must incorporate ways of supporting this formidable labour force by providing them adequate social security, affordable access to health and education, and decent housing with drinking water and sanitation. Socially, we need to be sensitive to the increasing diversity of people in our urban spaces and accept that we are all organically interdependent, instead of creating binaries like ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘settlers’ and ‘migrants’.
The networks and kinship ties that migrants bring with them will continue to shape the magnitude of both internal and international migration. They add to the changing demographic of the global city and the sooner we learn to deal with it in an ethos of care and mutual respect the better.
(The author is Professor of Sociology, University of Hyderabad)
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